Gross on the history of analytic philosophy in America

Neil Gross has a remarkably good ear for philosophy. And this extends especially to his occasional treatments of the influences that helped shape the discipline of philosophy in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. His sociological biography of Richard Rorty is a tour de force (Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link). There he skillfully maps the “field” of American philosophy (in the Bourdieusian sense) and places the evolution of Rorty’s thought within the landmarks of the field. The book is an excellent exemplar of the new sociology of ideas, bringing together material, symbolic, and intellectual forces that influence the direction and shape of an intellectual tradition.

In his contribution to Craig Calhoun’s Sociology in America: A History Gross offers a very short description of the ideological and social forces that helped to determine the directions taken by the philosophy discipline in the post-war years, and this too is very illuminating. In contrast to historians of philosophy who tell the story of the development of a period in terms of the internal intellectual problems and debates that determined it, Gross seeks to identify some of the external factors that made the terrain hospitable to this movement or that. (Consider, by contrast, the internalist story that Michael Beaney tells in The Analytic Turn: Analysis in Early Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology and in many chapters of The Oxford Handbook of The History of Analytic Philosophy.) Several paragraphs are worth quoting at length, since philosophers are unlikely to browse this collection on the history of American sociology.

Within academic philosophy, pragmatism’s stature was diminished considerably in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s as a result of the rise of what is called analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy began with the efforts of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell in England to vanquish the idealism that had become popular there after years when empiricism dominated (Delacampagne 1999). Russell, influenced by the efforts of Gottlob Frege to develop a formal system by which logical propositions could be represented, took the view that new light could be shed on long-standing philosophical problems if attention were paid to the language in which they are expressed, and to the logical assumptions underlying that language. Russell made crucial contributions to the philosophy of mathematics, in which he tried, like Frege, to reduce mathematics topologic, but he also sought to develop an alternative metaphysics according to which objects in the world are seen as composed of logical atoms to which more complex entities can be reduced. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein studied under Russell and picked up where he and Frege left off, arguing in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) that facts, not logical atoms or objects per se, compose the world, and that language — which represents facts — does so by “picturing” them in logically valid propositions. On the basis of this assumption, Wittgenstein claimed that many traditional philosophical problems — particularly those concerning ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics, which do not meet these criteria for picturing — are nonsensical. (201-202)

Gross goes on to describe the advent of ordinary language philosophy (Ryle, Austin), and the logical positivists. The positivists are particularly important in his story and in the subsequent development of professional academic philosophy in the United States.

The positivists, along with their counterparts at Oxford and Cambridge, had an enormous impact on U.S. philosophy, giving rise to a new style and tradition of philosophical scholarship. (202)

And Gross offers a sociological and political hypothesis for why analytic philosophy prevailed over pragmatism and idealism.

That analytic philosophy, at least in its early stages, downgraded the status of political philosophy may also have helped protect the field from critical scrutiny during the McCarthy era (McCumber 2001). Within the space of a few years, philosophers who saw themselves as working in the analytic tradition came to dominate nearly all the top-ranked U.S. philosophy graduate programs, analytic work became hegemonic in the major academic journals, and analysts came to assume leadership positions in the American Philosophical Association (Wilshire 2002). Pragmatism was marginalized as a consequence. Russell, for his part, had been sharply critical of Dewey, accusing pragmatism of being a philosophy “in harmony with the age of industrialism and collective enterprise” because it involved a “belief in human power and the unwillingness to admit ‘stubborn facts,’” which manifested itself in the view that the truth of a belief is a matter of its effects rather than its causes. Some American philosophers, like Chicago’s Charles Morris, tried to combine pragmatism and logical positivism, while others, like Quine or his Harvard colleague Morton White, brought pragmatism and linguistic analysis together in other ways. Nevertheless, many who worked in an analytic style came to see pragmatism and analytic philosophy as opposed, and pragmatism’s reputation went into decline. (203)

This is a nuanced and plausible precis of the evolution of academic philosophy during these decades, and the material influences that Gross cites (the influx of Vienna-school philosophers caused by the rise of Nazism, the political threat of McCarthyism) seem to be genuine historical causes of the rise of analytic philosophy dominance. And, consistent with the methods and priorities of the new sociology of ideas (link), Gross is very sensitive to the particulars of the institutions, journals, and associations through which a discipline seeks to define itself.

Contrast this narrative with the brief account offered by Michael Beaney in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of The History of Analytic Philosophy. Beaney too points out the importance of the exodus of positivist philosophers from Europe caused by the Nazi rise to power (kl 636). But the balance of his account works through the substantive ideas and debates that took center stage in academic philosophy in the 1940s and 1950s. To read his account, philosophy moved forward as a consequence of a series of logical debates.

Agreement on the key founders already gives some shape to the analytic tradition — as a first approximation, we can characterize it as what is inspired by their work. With this in mind, we can then identify two subsequent strands in analytic philosophy that develop the ideas of its four founders [Russell, Moore, Frege, Wittgenstein]. The first is the Cambridge School of Analysis … and the second is logical empiricism. (kl 826)

The impetus of Gross’s interest in the development of analytic philosophy in American universities was the impact this movement had on pragmatism. Essentially Gross argues that pragmatism was pushed into a minor role within academic philosophy by the ascendency of positivism and analytic philosophy, and that the latter occurred because of social factors in the university and society at large. Cheryl Misak is a contemporary expert on pragmatism (The American Pragmatists (The Oxford History of Philosophy), New Pragmatists), and she disputes this view from a surprising point of view: she argues that analytical philosophy actually absorbed the greater part of pragmatism, and that one could make the case that pragmatist ideas have great contemporary influence within philosophy. Her argument is summarized in “Rorty, Pragmatism, and Analytic Philosophy” (link).

When the logical empiricists arrived in America, they found a soil in which their position could thrive. They did not arrive in a land that was inhospitable to their view, nor did they need to uproot the view they found already planted there.


She argues that Peirce’s pragmatism had much in common with positivism, and she traces a fairly direct lineage from Peirce through Dewey and C.I. Lewis to Quine, Goodman, and Roy Wood Sellars. Here is her conclusion:

The epistemology and the view of truth that dominated analytic philosophy from the 1930s logical empiricism right through to the reign of Quine, Goodman, and Sellars in the 1950s–60s was in fact pragmatism. The stars of modern analytic philosophy were very much in step with pragmatism during the years in which it was supposedly driven out of philosophy departments by analytic philosophers.


It seems to me that it is possible that both Misak and Gross are right, because they are concerned with different aspects of the “field” of academic philosophy. Misak is focusing on the issues of content, logic, and epistemology, and she finds that there is a substantial continuity on these issues across the literature of both analytic philosophy and classical pragmatism. But Gross has taken a broader focus: what are the paradigmatic topics and modes of approach that were characteristic of analytic philosophy and pragmatism? What were the “styles” of thinking that were characteristic of analytic philosophy and pragmatism? And he is right in thinking that, had Peirce, James, and Dewey and their successors prevailed by dominating the chief research departments of philosophy, American academic philosophy would have looked very different.

Nelson Goodman on psychology

Nelson Goodman is best known within philosophy as an iconoclast within the logical empiricist tradition. He published Fact, Fiction and Forecast in 1954, offering a “new riddle of induction.” Goodman was deeply interested in the arts and he argued that artistic expression is on a par with other forms of assertion and representation — for example, in Languages of Art (1968). And his 1978 book, Ways of Worldmaking, cast doubt on the empiricist project of extracting concepts directly from experience. So Goodman was an important voice within American analytic philosophy. But he had a significant influence on me during my graduate studies in the context of a very different set of problems — the philosophy of psychology.

Goodman taught a course titled “Philosophical Problems in Psychology” at Harvard in 1971. The course contained material from the tradition of empiricist philosophy — Locke and Berkeley — as well as then-current research on cognition and representation by empirical psychologists. These included Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, T.G.R. Bower, Ray Birdwhistell, Paul Kolers, Michael Posner, and R. W. Sperry. Goodman was interested in how perception works — according to the philosophers and according to the psychologists. The guiding concern was this: what is the nature and origin of the conceptual systems through which human beings make sense of the world around them? The course began with an examination of the theories of perception and representation offered by Locke and Berkeley, beginning with the empiricists’ critique of innate ideas, and then proceeded to contemporary efforts to analyze the same processes in real human beings.

Some of the writings of Jean Piaget played a central role in the topics and discussions of this class, including The Construction Of Reality In The Child. Goodman was interested in Piaget’s efforts to chronicle the development of the child’s conceptual world — the formations through which the child makes sense of sensorimotor experience at various ages.

Another noteworthy component of the course was an extensive discussion of Paul Kolers’ work on motion perception eventually published in Aspects of Motion Perception (1972). (This research was published in 1971 as “Figural Change in Apparent Motion”; link.) The phenomenon that Kolers described was a flashing pair of images that oscillated between one geometrical figure and another. The images are stationary, but the visual impression is of a smoothly moving object that changes from one shape to the other. Goodman provided a detailed and perceptive analysis of the methods and assumptions that underlaid Kolers’ treatment of the phenomenon.

One idea that is pervasive throughout many of Goodman’s writings is the idea of conceptual relativism. This is the key contribution of Ways of Worldmaking. The idea comes up repeatedly in the 1971 course. Here is a paragraph taken from my notes from the course that captures a lot of Goodman’s own views about conceptual schemes:

Experience is always organized in one way or another. Moreover, not all ways of organizing are equally good; some work much better than others, some may be ineffectual; others may lead to internal inconsistencies. When one proves unsatisfactory, this leads to a reorganization. But doesn’t this require that there be a world out there to which our schemes conform? Yes and no; no because there is no unalterable way of looking at the world in which facts about the world are expressed; but yes, within any given system of organization there are true facts about the world to which other schemata must form. The important thing here is that there is no unique “structure of the world”…. Goodman calls his point of view “neutralism” or “conceptual pluralism”. (11/9/1971)

What is most impressive about this course is the fact that Goodman paid close attention to current work in psychology and the cognitive sciences. Goodman followed a philosophical method in this course that I continue to admire — the idea that philosophical reflections about an area of science can be valuable to the degree that they are closely connected to real research problems in that area of research. This approach leans against a primary focus on big issues — is behaviorism correct? Are there mental entities? — in favor of more specific questions within philosophical and psychological studies of perception.

What I now find most interesting about the design of this course is the underlying assumption that philosophers and empirical scientists can find common questions where their methodologies can fruitfully interact to shed greater light on the issues.  In this case, philosophers have a lot of questions about perception and conceptual schemes; and cognitive and developmental psychologists are doing experimental and theoretical work that sheds light on exactly these issues. Finding a common vocabulary is challenging for the two research traditions, but it seems clear that the collaboration can be highly fruitful.

(Here is an interesting collection that takes seriously some of Goodman’s strictures on conceptual systems from the point of view of problems in the social sciences: Mary Douglas and David Hull, eds., How Classification Works: Nelson Goodman Among the Social Sciences.) Alessandro Giovannelli’s article on Goodman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is excellent; link. Here is an extensive bibliography of Goodman’s works; link.)

Quine’s indeterminacies

W.V.O. Quine’s writings were key to the development of American philosophy in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. His landmark works (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” “Ontological Relativity,” and Word and Object, for example) provided a very appealing combination of plain speaking, seriousness, and import. Quine’s voice certainly stands out among all American philosophers of his period.

Quine’s insistence on naturalism as a view of philosophy’s place in the world is one of his key contributions. Philosophy is not a separate kind of theorizing and reasoning about the world, according to Quine; it is continuous with the empirical sciences through which we study the natural world (of which humanity and the social world are part). Also fundamental is his coherence theory of the justification of beliefs, both theoretical and philosophical. This theory was the source of John Rawls’s method of reasoning for a theory of justice based the idea of “reflective equilibrium.” This approach depended on careful weighing of our “considered judgments” and the adjustments of ethical beliefs needed to create the most coherent overall system of ethical beliefs.

There is another feature of Quine’s work that is particularly appealing: the fundamental desire that Quine had to make sense of obscure issues and to work through to plausible solutions. There is sometimes a premium on obscurity and elliptical thinking in some corners of the intellectual world. Quine was a strong antidote to this tendency. (John Searle makes similar points about the value of clarity in philosophical argument in his comments on Foucault here.)
Take “Ontological Relativity” (OR), the first of the Dewey Lectures in 1968 (link). The essay articulates some of Quine’s core themes — the behaviorist perspective on language and meaning, the crucial status of naturalism, and the indeterminacy of meaning and reference. But the essay also demonstrates a sensitive and careful reading of Dewey. Quine shows himself to be a philosopher who was able to give a respectful and insightful account of the ideas of other great philosophers.
Philosophically I am bound to Dewey by the naturalism that dominated his last three decades. With Dewey I hold that knowledge, mind, and meaning are part of the same world that they have to do with, and that they are to be studied in the same empirical spirit that animates natural science. There is no place for a prior philosophy. (185).
In OR Quine refers to a key metaphor in his own understanding of language and meaning, the “museum myth” theory of meaning. “Uncritical semantics is the myth of a museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels. To switch languages is to change the labels” (186). Against the museum myth, Quine argues here (as he does in Word and Object as well) for the indeterminacy of “meaning” and translation. The basic idea of indeterminacy of translation, as expressed in WO, comes down to this: there are generally alternative translation manuals that are possible between two languages (or within one’s own) which are equally compatible with all observed verbal behavior, and yet which map expressions onto significantly different alternative sentences. Sentence A can be mapped onto B1 or B2; B1 and B2 are apparently not equivalent; and therefore Sentence A does not have a fixed and determinate meaning either in the language or in the heads of the speakers. As Quine observes in his commentary on his example from Japanese concerning the translation of “five oxen”, “between the two accounts of Japanese classifiers there is no question of right and wrong” (193).
For naturalism the question whether two expressions are alike or unlike in meaning has no determinate answer, known or unknown, except insofar as the answer is settled in principle by people’s speech dispositions, known or unknown. If by these standards there are indeterminate cases, so much the worse for the terminology of meaning and likeness of meaning. (187)
Returning to the extended example he develops of indeterminacy of translation around the word “gavagai” that he introduced in Word and Object, Quine notes that the practical linguist will equate gavagai with “rabbit”, not “undetached rabbit part”. But he insists that there is no objective basis for this choice.
The implicit maxim guiding his choice of ‘rabbit’, and similar choices for other native words, is that an enduring and relatively homogeneous object, moving as a whole against a constrasting background, is a likely reference for a short expression. If he were to become conscious of this maxim, he might celebrate it as one of the linguistic universals, or traits of all languages, and he would have no trouble pointing out its psychological plausibility. But he would be wrong; the maxim is his own imposition, toward settling what is objectively indeterminate. It is a very sensible imposition, and I would recommend no other. But I am making philosophical point. (191)
In “Ontological Relativity” Quine takes the argument of the indeterminacy of meaning an important step forward, to argue for the “inscrutability of reference.” That is: there is no behavioral basis for concluding that a given language system involves reference to this set of fundamental entities rather than that set of fundamental entities. So not only can we not say that there are unique meanings associated with linguistic expressions; we cannot even say that expressions refer uniquely to a set of non-linguistic entities. This is what the title implies: there is no fixed ontology for a language or a scientific or mathematical theory.

These are radical and counter-intuitive conclusions — in some ways as radical as the “incommensurability of paradigms” notion associated with Thomas Kuhn and the critique of objectivity associated with Richard Rorty. What is most striking, though, is the fact that Quine comes to these conclusions through reasoning that rests upon very simple and clear assumptions. Fundamentally, it is his view that the only kinds of evidence and the only constraints that are available to users and listeners of language are the evidences of observable behavior; and the full body of this system of observations is insufficient to uniquely identify a single semantic map and a single ontology.

(Peter Hylton’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a good job of capturing the logic of Quine’s philosophy; link.)

Marketing Wittgenstein

Who made Wittgenstein a great philosopher?  Why is the eccentric Austrian now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers? What conjunction of events in his life history and the world of philosophy in the early twentieth century led to this accumulating recognition and respect?

We might engage in a bit of Panglossian intellectual history (“everything works out for the best!”) and say something like this: The young man Wittgenstein was in fact exceptionally talented and original, and eventually talent rises to the attention of the elite in a discipline or field of knowledge. But this is implausible in even more ordinary circumstances. And the circumstances in which Wittgenstein achieved eminence were anything but ordinary. His formal training was in engineering, not philosophy; his national origin was Austria, not Britain; his early years were marked by the chaos of the Great War; his personality was prickly and difficult; and his writings were as easily characterized as “peculiar” as “brilliant”.

The idea of a “field” introduced by Bourdieu in The Field of Cultural Production is particularly helpful in addressing this topic. (Here is a post that discusses the idea of a field; link.) The field of philosophy at a given time is an assemblage of institutions, personages, universities, journals, and funding agencies.  The question of whether an aspiring young philosopher rises or languishes is a social and institutional one, depending on the nature of his/her graduate program, the eminence of the mentors, the reception of early publications and conference presentations, and the like.  Indicators and causes of rising status depend on answers to questions like these: Are the publications included in the elite journals? Are the right people praising the work?  Is the candidate pursuing the right kinds of topics given the tastes of the current generation of “cool finders” in the profession? This approach postulates that status in a given profession depends crucially on situational and institutional facts — not simply “talent” and “brilliance”. And in many instances, the reality of these parameters reflexively influence the thinker himself: the young philosopher adapts, consciously or unconsciously, to the signposts of status.

Neil Gross’s biography of Richard Rorty (Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher) provides a great example of careful analysis of a philosopher’s career in these terms (link). Gross provides a convincing account of how the influence of the field’s definition of the “important” problems affected Rorty’s development, and how the particular circumstances of the Princeton department affected his later development in an anti-analytic direction.  Camic, Gross, and Lamont provide similar examples in Social Knowledge in the Making, including especially Neil Gross and Crystal Fleming’s study of the evolution of a conference paper.

So what was the “field” into which Wittgenstein injected himself in his visits to Frege and Russell?  Here is a point that seems likely to me from the perspective of 2012: the “field” of analytic philosophy in 1905 was substantially less determinate than it was from 1950 to 1980.  This fact has two contradictory implications: first, that this indeterminacy made it more possible for an “oddball” philosopher to make it to the top; and second, that it made it more unlikely that talent would be consistently identified and rewarded.  The relative looseness of the constraints on the field permitted “sports” to emerge, and also made it possible that highly meritorious thinkers would be overlooked.  (So the brilliant young metaphysician studying philosophy at the University of Nebraska in 1908 might never have gotten a chance to move into the top reaches of the discipline.)

What were some of the situational facts that contributed to Wittgenstein’s meteoric rise? One element seems clear: Wittgenstein’s early association with Bertrand Russell beginning in 1911, and the high level entrée this provided Wittgenstein into the elite circles of philosophy at Cambridge, was a crucial step in his rise to stardom. And Wittgenstein’s status with Russell was itself a curious conjunction: Wittgenstein’s fascination with Frege, aspects of Tractatus that appealed to Russell, and Wittgenstein’s personal intellectual style.  But because of this association, Wittgenstein wasn’t starting his rise to celebrity in the provinces, but rather at the center of British analytic philosophy.
Another element is one that was highly valued in Cambridge culture — the individual’s conversational skills. Simply being introduced into a circle of eminent thinkers doesn’t assure eminence. Instead, it is necessary to perform conversationally in ways that induce interest and respect. LW was apparently charismatic in an intense, harsh way. He was passionate about ideas and he expressed himself in ways that gave an impression of brilliant originality.  He made a powerful impression on the cool-finders.
And then there are his writings — or rather, his peculiar manuscript, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

One could easily have dismissed the manuscript as a mad expression of logicism run wild, with its numbered paragraphs, its dense prose, and its gnomic expressions. Or one could react, as Russell did, with understanding and fascination. But without the reputation created by the reception of TLP, Wittgenstein would never have gotten the chance to expose the equally perplexing and challenging thinking that was expressed in Philosophical Investigations (3rd Edition).  In fact, almost all of LW’s written work is epigrammatic and suggestive rather than argumentative and constructive. When there is insight, it comes as a bolt from the blue rather than as a developed line of thought.

So what if we test out this idea: a verbally brilliant man, a charismatic interlocutor, a person with original perspectives on philosophical topics and methods — but also a figure who benefited greatly from some excellent marketing, some influential patrons, and some situationally unusual lucky breaks. Had Russell been less patient, had publishers found TLC too weird for their liking, had Moore been less open-minded about Wittgenstein’s PhD defense — then analytical philosophy might no longer remember the name “Wittgenstein”. This interpretation of Wittgenstein’s stature suggests something more general as well: there is an enormous dollop of arbitrariness and contingency in the history of ideas and in the processes through which some thinkers emerge as “canonical”.
Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar provide an excellent introduction to Wittgenstein’s philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).


The sociology of ideas: Richard Rorty

Where do new ideas and directions of thought come from?  Is it possible to set a context for important changes in intellectual culture, in the sciences or the humanities?  Can we give any explanation for the development of individual thinkers’ thought?

These are the key questions that Neil Gross raises in his sociological biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (2009).  The book is excellent in every respect.  Gross has gone into thorough detail in discovering and incorporating correspondence with family and friends that allow him to reconstruct the micro setting within which the young Rorty took shape.  His exposition of the complex philosophical debates that set the stage for academic philosophy in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s is effortless and accurate.  And he offers a very coherent interpretation of many of Rorty’s most important ideas.  Any one of these achievements is noteworthy; together they are exceptional.

Gross is not interested in writing a traditional intellectual biography. Rather, he wants to advance the emerging field of “new sociology of ideas” through an extended case study of the development of a particularly important philosopher. The purpose of the book is to provide a careful and sociologically rich account of the ways in which a humanities discipline (philosophy) developed, through a crucial period (the 1940s through the 1980s).

My goal is to develop, on the basis of immersion in an empirical case, a new theory about the social influences on intellectual choice, particularly for humanists—that is, a theory about the social factors that lead them to fasten onto one idea, or set of ideas, rather than another, during turning points in their intellectual careers. (kindle location 95)

The argument I now want to make is that the developments considered in chapters 1–8 reflect not Rorty’s idiosyncratic and entirely contingent biographical experiences but the operation of more general social mechanisms and processes that shaped and structured his intellectual life and career. (kl 5904)

Here is how he describes the sociology of ideas:

Sociologists of ideas seek to uncover the relatively autonomous social logics and dynamics, the underlying mechanisms and processes, that shape and structure life in the various social settings intellectuals inhabit: academic departments, laboratories, disciplinary fields, scholarly networks, and so on. It is these mechanisms and processes, they claim, that—in interaction with the facts that form the material for reflection—do the most to explain the assumptions, theories, methodologies, interpretations of ambiguous data, and specific ideas to which thinkers come to cleave. (kl 499)

The goal is to provide a sociological interpretation of the development of thinkers and disciplines within the humanities (in deliberate analogy to current studies in the sociology of science).  Gross acknowledges but rejects earlier efforts at sociology of knowledge (Marx, Mannheim), as being reductionist to the thinker’s location within a set of social structures.  Gross is more sympathetic to more recent contributions, including especially  the theories of Bourdieu (field) (Homo Academicus) and Randall Collins (interaction ritual chains) (The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change).  These theories emphasize the incentives and advantages that lead strategically minded professionals in one direction or another within a discipline or field. But Gross argues that these theories too are insufficiently granular and don’t provide a basis for accounting for the choices made by particular intellectuals.

One does not have to be a methodological individualist to recognize that meso- and macrolevel social phenomena are constituted out of the actions and interactions of individual persons and that understanding individual-level action—its nature and phenomenology and the conditions and constraints under which it unfolds—is helpful for constructing theories of higher order phenomena, even though the latter have emergent properties and cannot be completely reduced to the former. (kl 158)

To fill this gap he wants to offer a sociology of ideas that brings agency back in.  He introduces the idea of the role of the individual’s “self-concept”, which turns out to be a basis for the choices the young intellectual makes within the context of the strategy-setting realities of the field.  A self-concept is a set of values, purposes, and conceptions that the individual has acquired through a variety of social structures, and that continues to evolve through life.  Gross emphasizes the narrative character of a self-conception: it is expressed and embodied through the stories the individual tells him/herself and others about the development of his/her life.

The theory of intellectual self-concept can thus be restated as follows: Thinkers tell stories to themselves and others about who they are as intellectuals. They are then strongly motivated to do intellectual work that will, inter alia, help to express and bring together the disparate elements of these stories. Everything else being equal, they will gravitate toward ideas that make this kind of synthesis possible. (kl 6650)

There is good reason to believe that such stories or self-narratives are not epiphenomenal aspects of experience but influences on social action in their own right. Indeed, few notions have been as important in social psychology as those of self and self-concept. (551)

Simply stated, the theory of intellectual self-concept holds that intellectuals tell themselves and others stories about who they are qua intellectuals: about their distinctive interests, dispositions, values, capacities, and tastes. (kl 6487)

And Gross thinks that these stories are deeply influential, in terms of the choices that a developing intellectual makes at each stage of life.  In particular, he thinks that the academic’s choices are often inflected by his/her self-conception to an extent that may override the strategic and prudential considerations that are highlighted by Bourdieu and Collins. Bourdieu and Collins offer “no attempt to think through how the quest for status and upward mobility in an intellectual field may intersect and sometimes compete with thinkers’ cognitive and affective interests in remaining true to narratives of intellectual selfhood that have become more or less stable features of their existence” (562). In his view, identity trumps interest–at least sometimes.

Here is how he applies this analysis to Rorty:

My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosopher to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. (576)

Or in other words, Rorty’s early career is well explained by the Bourdieu-Collins theory, whereas his later shift towards pragmatism and more heterodox, pluralistic philosophy is explained by his self-concept.

In Gross’s telling of the story, much of Richard Rorty’s self-concept was set by the influences of his remarkable parents in childhood and adolescence, James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush.  The parents were politically engaged literary and political intellectuals, and they created an environment of social and intellectual engagement that set aspects of Richard’s self-concept that influenced several key choices in his life.  Gross’s depiction of the social and intellectual commitments of James and Winifred, and the elite milieu in which they circulated, is detailed and striking. This “social capital” served Richard well in his course from the University of Chicago to Yale into his academic career.

Gross believes that the key turns in Rorty’s development were these: first, the decision to do a masters thesis on Whitehead at Chicago; then his choice of Yale as a doctoral institution, with a Ph.D. dissertation on “The Concept of Potentiality” (a metaphysical subject); his shift towards analytic philosophy during his first several years of teaching at Wellesley; his deepening engagement with analytic philosophy in the early years at Princeton; his eventual critique of analytic philosophy in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; and his further alienation from analytic philosophy in the years that followed towards a contemporary pragmatism and a more pluralistic view of the domain of philosophical methods.  In other words, he began in an environment where pragmatism and substantive metaphysics were valued; he shifted to the more highly valued field of analytic philosophy during the years in which he was building his career and approaching tenure; and he returned to a more pluralistic view of philosophy in the years when his career was well established.

Rorty’s turn to analytic philosophy makes sense in a Bourdieuian way. Gross describes his Wellesley-era and early Princeton philosophical writings in these terms:

They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s efforts to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment. (kl 4642)

Those observing Rorty’s career from afar might have interpreted this spate of analytic publications, coming on the heels of The Linguistic Turn, as evidence that Rorty had joined the ranks of the analytic community and saw his work as of a piece with that being done by other analysts. (kl 4853)

But eventually Rorty shifts his philosophical stance, towards a pluralistic and pragmatist set of ideas about philosophical method and subject matter.  Here is how Gross summarizes Rorty’s turn to pragmatism:

On this understanding, a pragmatist is someone who holds three beliefs: first, that “there is no wholesale, epistemological way to direct, or criticize, or underwrite, the course of inquiry”; second, that “there is no . . . metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science”; and third, that “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones.” (kl 719)

As Rorty went about developing a historicist, therapeutic alternative to the analytic philosophy he saw being practiced by his Princeton colleagues and others, no one’s work was more important to him than that of Thomas Kuhn. (kl 5054)

And Gross dates Rorty’s impulses towards pragmatism to a much earlier phase of his intellectual development than is usually done:

Far from it being the case, as some Rorty interpreters have claimed, that Rorty’s interest in pragmatism arose only after he made a break with analytic philosophy, his earliest work is characterized by a desire to harness pragmatist insights in the service of a revised conception of the analytic project. (kl 4037)

Rorty rode both of these intellectual waves, becoming caught up in the rigorism of the analytic paradigm in the 1960s and then emerging as a leading figure in the antirigorist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. (kl 7058)

The book repays a close reading, in that it sheds a lot of light on a key period in the development of American philosophy and it provides a cogent sociological theory of the factors that influenced this development.  It is really a remarkable book. It would be fascinating to see similar accounts of innovative thinkers such as Nelson Goodman, John Rawls, or (from literary studies) Stephen Greenblatt.  That’s not likely to happen, however, so this book will probably remain a singular illustration of a powerful theory of the sociology of ideas.

What is the philosophy of history?


When philosophers have written about “history”, they have often had different and even incompatible goals in mind. One tradition of philosophers, generally pre-twentieth century and generally from continental Europe, have wanted to contribute to answers to large questions about the nature of history as it presented itself over time as a compound of individuals, actions, nations, and civilizations: Does history have a direction? Does history have meaning? Is there a plan to history? Do civilizations rise and fall? Is materialism or idealism the better framework for understanding the movement of history? G. W. F. Hegel, for example, wanted to discover the underlying rationality within history. This approach to the study of history is often referred to as “speculative” or “substantive.”

A second group of philosophers, also largely continental, were inspired by the strong connections that exist between individual human life and expression, and large collective events and processes. The theory of hermeneutics attempts to provide an intellectual framework for analyzing and interpreting meaningful human expressions – poetry, actions, thoughts, and motives. Hermeneutic philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries extended this approach to efforts to understand large historical events and processes in similar terms. Wilhelm Dilthey was one of the early exponents of the hermeneutic approach to human affairs. Hermeneutic philosophy of history seeks to understand events, movements, and processes in terms of the meanings that they embody and the meaningful relations they bear to other historical events.

Another group of philosophers, often in the twentieth century and often English-speaking, have focused their attention on the nature of historical knowledge rather than the concrete events of history. Analytic philosophers have wanted to clarify the grounds of historical knowledge and explanation. Issues such as the nature of narrative, the role of general laws in historical explanations, and the objectivity or subjectivity of historical judgment have been taken up by Arthur Danto, Patrick Gardner, Carl Hempel, and others. This approach is sometimes referred to as “analytical”; more generally, we might say that it is epistemological and methodological.

New questions have emerged since World War II within the discourse of philosophy about “history” by philosophers, both analytical and continental. These new areas were stimulated, first, by the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the effort to make sense of this horrendous tear in the fabric of modern civilization. How are we to make sense of the Holocaust? How should we remember it? A second source of new thinking about history by contemporary philosophers is the linguistic and semantic turn that many of the human sciences took in the 1970s and 1980s (Rorty, 1967). A cohort of writers in the 1980s and 1990s undertook to approach history from the point of view of narrative and meaning. In some ways this was a return to the hermeneutic approach to human affairs of the nineteenth century; but it was also original in that it brought new thinking from the philosophy of language into the debate.

There is a valid but limited place for metaphysical research in the area of the philosophy of history. Fundamentally, we need to have a clearer specification of the meaning of key concepts that we use in analyzing and describing historical events and structures. Philosophers can help in probing and refining these concepts. These ontological questions are really about our conceptual schemes rather than about substantive historical facts. What presuppositions are we making when we divide history into epochs or regions? Does it make sense to refer to civilizations as a whole? So we need a more explicit theory of historical ontology, and the philosophy of history can help to provide such a theory. What we cannot hope to achieve is an apriori discovery of the reality of history – its meaning, direction, or foundational causes. This is not a limitation of our ability to discover historical truths, but rather a reflection of the fact that there are no general answers to these questions at all. Kant’s critique of substantive metaphysics is decisive here.

As this summary suggests, there are many unanswered questions that philosophers can usefully pose to the discipline and facts of history. For this reason it is timely to consider some new approaches to the philosophy of history. The past decade has seen several contributions that are difficult to classify according to the distinctions provided above. They are analytic but not reductionist; they pay attention to narrative but nonetheless attribute rational warrant to historical accounts; and they are respectful towards the actual practices of gifted historians, rather than assuming that the philosophy of history can proceed as a separate philosophical discourse. Significantly, new contributions to this subject come from philosophers, literary critics, anthropologists, and historians. Perhaps this is a clue for how the field might most productively move forward: by incorporating several philosophical perspectives, by raising new questions, and by reaching across the human sciences as well as philosophy to find some innovative new answers.

Philosophy of social science today


A sign of arrival for a sub-discipline is the appearance of a handbook for the field. By that criterion, the philosophy of social science has passed an important threshold with the appearance of Ian Jarvie and Jesus Zamora-Bonilla’s SAGE Handbook of the Philosophy of Social Sciences. The 750-page volume offers 37 main articles, as well as an extensive reflective introduction by Ian Jarvie and an epilogue by Jesus Zamora-Bonilla. A majority of the contributors are European, confirming an impression that the most active research networks in this field are currently in Western Europe. Germany and the Scandinavian countries are particularly well represented.

Ian Jarvie’s extensive introduction does a good job of setting the stage for the volume. He is in a unique position to offer this perspective, having served as editor of the key journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences for many years. He begins by noting the heterogeneity of the field:

As a set of problems, the philosophy of the social sciences is wide-ranging, untidy, inter-disciplinary and constantly being reconfigured in response to new problems thrown up by developments in the social sciences; in short, disorderly. (1)

The orientation to the philosophy of social science represented in this volume is largely grounded in the analytic philosophy tradition. By this I mean an emphasis on rationality, an interest in generalizations and laws, a commitment to empirical methods of inquiry, and an over-arching preference for conceptual clarity. (Paul Roth describes the analytic approach in his contribution to the volume; 103ff.) But David Teira also offers an interesting contribution on “Continental Philosophies of the Social Sciences.” He begins the article by writing,

In my view, there is no such thing as a continental philosophy of the social sciences. There is, at least, no consensual definition of what is precisely continental in any philosophical approach. (81)

Among these approaches he highlights Marxist, phenomenological and Foucauldian philosophies and theories of the social sciences. His finding is one that I agree with — that one of the particularly valuable aspects of the continental traditions is the fact that thinkers in this tradition have offered large, insightful conceptual schemes for thinking about social life — whether historical materialism, ethnomethodology, or the rhetoric of power. He writes, “I guess that if continental philosophies seem attractive to many social scientists, it is because they offer the prospect of a somewhat radical reconstruction of current research practices” (96).

Particularly interesting for me were contributions by Alban Bouvier (“Individualism, Collective Agency and The “Micro-Macro Relation”), Daniel Steel (“Causality, Causal Models, and Social Mechanisms”), Joan de Marti and Yves Zenou (“Social Networks”), Peter Hedstrom and Petri Ylikoski (“Analytical Sociology”), Chris Mantzavinos (“Institutions”), and Jeroen Van Bouwel and Erik Weber (“Explanation in the Social Sciences”).

What is particularly valuable in this collection is the fact that most of the essays are not dogmatic in their adherence to a “school” of philosophical thought. Instead, they get down to the serious business of understanding the social world, and understanding what is involved in achieving a scientific understanding of that world. Chris Mantzavinos’s essay, “Institutions,” is a good example of this intellectual pragmatism. His contribution is a careful study of the new institutionalism and the variety of theoretical challenges that the concept of an institution raises. The essay is very well grounded in the current sociology and political science literatures on institutions, and it goes on to make substantively interesting points about these debates. “Only a theory of institutions that increases our information about the structure of social reality can provide us with the means of reorienting this reality in a direction that we find desirable” (408-9).

Many of the contributors — probably the majority — have taken seriously what I think is a particularly fundamental requirement for productive work in the philosophy of an area of science. This is the need for the philosopher to take up the particular theories and controversies of some current research in the social sciences as a framework and stimulus to their philosophical analysis. The philosopher needs to gain a significant level of expertise in a particular field of social science if his or her work is likely to find traction with conceptual issues that really matter. The topics for the philosophy of social science should not derive from apriori speculation about society; instead, they should be selected on the basis of careful engagement with serious empirical and theoretical attempts to explain the social world.

This is the kind of book that would benefit from a simultaneous digital edition. An affordable Kindle edition would help; but more radically, an online, hypertexted and cross-linked version would be fantastic. It would be fascinating to see a concept map linking the articles by theme or keyword; it would be illuminating to see some analysis of the patterns of citation across the articles in the volume; and it would be great for the reader to be able to click to some of the references directly. (Jarvie provides something like a map of themes in his tables representing “Principal Problems in Philosophy of the Social Sciences” and “Problematics in 14 Selected Anthologies”; 7-8.)



Hobbes in context

We often think of Hobbes as being an originator in English philosophy, a strikingly innovative thinker who burst on the scene with the first formulation of a social contract theory of government. And we sometimes think of his justification of absolute sovereignty as a fairly direct reaction to the disorders Britain experienced during its Civil War and Glorious Revolution.  Richard Tuck’s Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction puts Hobbes into a much more nuanced position.

Fundamental to Tuck’s approach as a historian of philosophy is to problematize the idea of “philosophy”.  Rather than assuming that the subject matter and methodology of philosophy were fixed once and for all by some traditional authority — perhaps Aristotle and Plato — Tuck takes the position that thinkers have defined themselves in ways that have eventually come to be described as “philosophy,” but that nonetheless cover a very wide range of intellectual approaches and concerns.  Here is a particularly striking set of ideas from Tuck’s contextualization of Hobbes:

It is sometimes tempting to think that the heroes of the various histories of philosophy or ethics — men as different as St Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Hobbes, Kant, or Hegel — were all in some sense engaged in a common enterprise, and would have recognized one another as fellow workers. But a moment’s reflection reminds us that it is we who have made a unity of their task: from their own point of view, they belonged to very different ways of living and had very different tasks to perform. They would have seen themselves as intellectually kin to men who do not figure in these lists — priests or scholars who had on the face of it no great philosophical interest. (1)

I think his point here is an important and insightful one: philosophy was reinvented in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, and swerved dramatically away from ancient and medieval philosophy. It was a new project, motivated by different problems, assumptions, and goals.

Tuck gives a good deal of attention to Hobbes’s biography, with the implication that these historical, social, and familial circumstances contributed to shaping the philosophical imagination of the maturing thinker.  The situation of service as tutor and secretary to the household of William Lord Cavendish that occupied Hobbes for most of his life plays an important role in his intellectual development.  It also provided him with direct access to some of the great intellectuals and scientists of France and Venice, including eventually Mersenne, Descartes, and Galileo.
A central intellectual theme in the air during Hobbes’s early development was that of humanist skepticism about empirical and ethical knowledge.

The central feature of this literature was a pervasive scepticism about the validity of the moral principles by which an earlier generation had lived. (7)

The response of many of Lipsius’s generation (he was born in 1547) was to give up strongly held and publicly defended beliefs of all kinds, and to retreat to a dispassionate and skeptical stance. (9)

Tuck argues that Hobbes defined his thought in terms of an effort to create a new, though more modest, basis for knowledge in both empirical and ethical matters.  He was greatly influenced by the example and thinking of Galileo.  Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World appeared in 1632, and during 1634 Hobbes purchased a copy of the book for Newcastle.  One of the key issues in the philosophical world was whether the senses deceive us; and Hobbes followed Descartes in holding that the observable features of the world (color, smell) should not be understood to directly correspond to real characteristics of the invisible reality of the object.  Hobbes was interested in optics and mathematics — the areas of science that appeared to be most relevant to the question of the real features of the world. In fact, Tuck leaves the impression that philosophy of science is as important in Hobbes’s work as the philosophy of politics.
Another core theme in Hobbes’s itinerary is a visceral opposition to government religion — religious requirements embodied in the state.  And Tuck shows with repeated examples why this issue was so important during the Civil War; the struggle between contending sides had very much to do with the scope of religious discipline to be imposed by the state.  Hobbes was opposed to religious law and mandates of belief, and therefore found himself in roughly the camp of the Tolerationists.

The ecclesiastical regime put into place by the new republic after 1649 was very close to what Hobbes seems to have wanted on general grounds, and which he may well have enthusiastically preferred to traditional episcopacy.  This is because, like almost all the most interesting 17th-century political theorists (including Grotius and Locke), he seems to have feared the moral and intellectual disciplines of Presbyterian Calvinism far more than anything else. (39)

Hobbes’s primary object in arguing like this was to elevate the power of the sovereign over the churches — bands of fanatics (in his eyes) who wished to enforce absurd opinions upon their fellow citizens, and whose activities were primarily responsible for the civil wars of Europe.  They could only be controlled if the soverign was empowered to determine public doctrine and silence disputes. (85)

Tuck argues that Hobbes’s earliest and most important influence on Hobbes in the area of moral and political philosophy was Hugo Grotius and his book, The Laws of War and Peace.  Tuck describes this influence in these terms:

[Grotius] could play the same role for him as Galileo’s Dialogues did for all members of the Mersenne circle, as a represntation for them of the kind of science which was to be put on their new, post-sceptical foundations. (25)

Tuck summarizes Grotius’s core theory in two fundamental principles: “All men would agree that everyone has a fundamental right to preserve themselves, and wanton or unnecessary injury to another person is unjustifiable” (26).  Tuck finds that these principles have counterparts in Hobbes’s arguments in Leviathan.
So Tuck seems to be putting forward several important strands of interpretation that run against the grain of the customary telling of Hobbes’s philosophy: first, that his philosophy of science and sensation plays a larger role than we might have thought; and second, that his most famous theory, the theory of unlimited sovereignty, has rather specific roots in Hobbes’s immediate intellectual context (Grotius) and political environment (struggles over the extent of religious legislation).  It is not the result of a purely abstract reflection on the situation of rational persons in a state of nature, but rather a complex argument that intertwines with England’s own political tensions in mid-seventeenth century.
Steven Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution is a nice complement to this line of thought, in that it offers a fundamentally new reading of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.  Here is how Pincus describes his project:

England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that had a hand in shaping it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and public intellectuals identified England’s Revolution of 1688-89 as a defining moment in England’s exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.  Historians have pointed to the Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state. Scholars of literature and culture highlight the Revolution of 1688-89 as an important moment in defining English common sense and moderation.  All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England’s Revolution of 1688-89.  Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. (Introduction)

(Two articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hobbes’s philosophy are worth reading (linklink).)


French philosophy?

Is there such a thing as “French philosophy”? Or is philosophy a purely universal discipline, raising the same abstract questions no matter whether the philosopher is Chinese, English, French, or Brazilian? One way to address this question is to consider the collective intellectual practice of “philosophy” from the point of view of sociology — that is to say, historically and empirically.

Jean-Louis Fabiani’s book Qu’est-ce qu’un philosophe français? (which was released in France this week) addresses this question from the point of view of sociology, and it provides a fascinating and innovative approach to the history of philosophy. (Here is a link to Fabiani’s academic bio.) Fabiani was a student of Bourdieu, and he approaches philosophy in something like the way that other sociologists have approached the study of science: as a socially situated intellectual activity which is amenable to sociological analysis and explication. The fact that it is intellectual implies that there is an internal logic to the development of the discourse; organized thinking moves it forward. And the fact it is situated implies that philosophy is conditioned and motivated by social circumstances external to the philosophical community.

Fabiani attempts to steer a highly original course between the idea that social context determines the content of a specific philosophical tradition, and the idea that philosophy develops wholly and solely according to its own internal intellectual logic. Crude sociology of knowledge falls in the first camp, and traditional history of philosophy often appears to fall in the second camp. Fabiani takes an approach that allows both for social influence on philosophy as well as critical, rigorous logical analysis and thought wielding its influence.

Here is a description that Fabiani provides of philosophy as an object of sociological study. (The passages quoted here are drawn from a pre-publication translation Fabiani provided in a visit this month to the University of Michigan.)

Philosophy is never limited to a collection of texts, knitted together by the threads of tradition. It also includes material objects, spaces and social practices. It includes all types of reception, including the less orthodox. As with any other type of work, philosophical texts imply different types of appropriation in space and time, and exist only through the successive pacts of reception that constitute them as valued objects in a particular culture. 

He asks the questions, what is a sociology of philosophy and why is it needed? And here are some of his answers:

I wish to analyze philosophy just as what we now call science studies have analyzed processes and controversies in the various scientific disciplines. Science studies have questioned the great epistemological divide which reserved the study of contextual elements for sociologists (institutions, organizations, strategies, etc.) and removed the assertions, demonstrations and the quest for evidence from their purview (except if they are crudely determinist and seek to explain concepts entirely by contexts, to put it simply). 

What could be interesting about a socio-historical analysis of philosophy? First, we have to suspend our belief — at least for a while, because it is the habitual battleground of the activity — in the existence of an abstract and universal frame for the philosophical debates, this the result of a venerable scholarly tradition. The « relocalization » of philosophical interactions is necessary in order to see that philosophical texts are also performances, not only embodiments and products of lifestyles but also their sources.

Studying philosophy by means of sociological methods would appear to be one of the most important challenges for the social sciences today. « The queen of disciplines,» as it is called in France (or the crown–or crowning as I once described it years ago) has long resisted any attempt at objectivation.

Although the most general objection to the ascription of social determinants in the shaping of social thought are now superannuated, the explanatory power of theories applied to the field of intellectual production still remains quite limited. The modes of categorization applied to products and to individual intellectual strategies are too crude and their use too poorly controlled; we no longer take for granted that society as such can be read (at least in a cryptic language) through symbolic production.

So what is in play when we ask whether philosophy (or any other intellectual discipline) is conditioned by its historical and social context?  We might say that a national tradition of philosophy could be characterized according to several different criteria: topics, styles of thought, modes of validation, and lineage of predecessors. For example, British philosophy defined itself in terms of several core ideas — the role of the senses in the acquisition and validation of knowledge, for example; and Hume, Locke, and Berkeley deployed recognizable forms of argument and styles of reasoning as well.  Hume’s treatises look and feel quite a bit different from Descartes’ meditations.  Here is a way of conceptualizing the situation of philosophical research and discovery:

The diagram is intended to be a way of visualizing a philosophy research tradition at a moment in time. The unit of production, the philosophy research group, is steeped in a conventional specification of the important topics; it is skilled in a specific set of modes of argument; it holds out a set of exemplary philosophical works from the history of the discipline as currently understood; it operates in a space that may include other research groups pursuing different topics and methods; and it functions within a set of institutions — graduate programs, journals, tenure processes, associations, prizes — that train, valorize, and rank various individuals and their products.  Each aspect of these “internal” features is amenable to concrete historical and sociological investigation; we can seek to trace out the institutions, discover the order and rationale of the topics, etc.

External to these factors are circumstances in history and current social life (World War I, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement), and intellectual currents from outside the discipline (Freudianism, for example), that exercise influence on the development of philosophical positions and frameworks. The social context draws attention to (or away from) certain topics; context also sometimes provides institutional constraints that favor or disfavor some positions.  (For example, McCarthyism and the Cold War created constraints and incentives that greatly deformed the course of research in the humanities and the social sciences.)  The intellectual activities of the current research groups lead to a degree of development of the ideas, positions, and schools of philosophy at a given moment in time. So the received setting, external environment, and application of modes of invention and argument drive forward new philosophical content, and the institutions of the profession attach credibility/lack of credibility and prestige/scorn to the results.

The diagram indicates as well several ways in which a philosophical tradition might possess a distinctive, national character. The list of valued topics may differ across national traditions; likewise the styles of reasoning and modes of argument; and different traditions may valorize very different bodies of predecessors as well. So it is fairly evident that Fabiani’s question warrants a “yes” — there are distinguishing characteristics or signatures across traditions of philosophy. And even when the topics and questions appear similar — the focus on the conditions of knowledge in common between British and French philosophy in the 17th century, for example– the styles of thinking, modes of reasoning, and examples of good solutions still differ widely.

Should we think of these differences as defining distinct paradigms of philosophy? I’m inclined to use a different term — perhaps “research tradition” — to suggest a high degree of variation within a national tradition of philosophy. Like other areas of humanities production, it seems to me that the standards and exemplars that hold together “analytic philosophy” or “hermeneutic philosophy” are much looser and less prescriptive than their counterparts in the natural sciences. So the term “paradigm” does not fit the framing of philosophy in context very well.

Fabiani’s work rewards study and bears an interesting relation to other efforts to discover distinctive features of French intellectual life (the distinctiveness of French sociology (link), the development of French anthropology (link)).  Johan Heilbron’s work is relevant to these topics as well (The Rise Of The Social Sciences And The Formation Of Modernity). Here is the table of contents of Fabiani’s current book:

Première partie
L’institution d’une discipline
Chapitre premier – La philosophie en classe
Chapitre 2 – Carrières et concepts
Chapitre 3 – Les moments et les crises
Deuxième partie
Une philosophie nationale?
Chapitre 4 – Le rempart de la raison
Chapitre 5 – Le spiritualisme français
Chapitre 6 – Transferts conceptuels
Troisième partie
Art, religion, science et philosophie
Chapitre 7 – La religion ddans les limites de la simple raison?
Chapitre 8 – Aux frontiers de la science
Chapitre 9 – Le philosophe artiste et la tentation prophétique
(The photo above is of Alexandre Kojève.  It is relevant to the current topic because of Kojève’s complex philosophical heritage — Russia, Germany, and eventually the leading explicateur of Hegel in post-war France.)

Mental models for the social world

What is involved in being prepared to understand what is going on around you?

In a sense this is Kant’s fundamental question in the Critique of Pure Reason: what intellectual resources (concepts, categories, frameworks) does a cognitive agent need in order to make sense of the contents of consciousness, the fleeting experiences and sensations that life brings us? And his answer is pretty well known: we need concepts of fixed objects in space and time, subject to causal laws.  The stream of experiences we have is organized around a set of persistent objects located in time and space with specific causal properties. Space, time, cause, and object are the fundamental categories of cognition when it comes to understanding the natural world. This line of thought leads to an esoteric philosophical idea, the notion of transcendental metaphysics. (P. F. Strawson’s work on Kant is particularly helpful; The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.)

But we can ask essentially the same kind of question about the ordinary person’s ability to make sense of the social world around him or her. Each person is exposed to a dense stream of experiences of the social world, at various levels. We have ordinary interactions — with friends, bus drivers, postal carriers, students — and we want to interpret the behavior that we observe. We read news reports and tweets about happenings in the wider world — riots in Athens, suicide attacks in Pakistan, business statements about future sales, … — and we want to know what these moments mean, how they hang together, and what might have caused them.  In short, we need to have a set of mental resources that permit us to organize these experiences into a representation of a coherent social reality.

So is it possible to provide a transcendental metaphysics for ordinary social experience? Can we begin to list the kinds of concepts we need to have in order to cognize the social world?

We might say that a very basic building block of social cognition is a set of scripts or schemas into which we are prepared to fit our observations and experiences. Suppose we observe two people approach each other on the street, exchange words, bow heads slightly, and part. This interaction between two strangers might be categorized as “courtesy” during a chance meeting. But it might be construed in other ways as well: ironic insults, sexual innuendo, or condescension from superior to inferior. Each of these is an alternative interpretive frame, a way of conceptualizing and “seeing” a complex series of behaviors.  So the scripts or frames that we bring to the observations impose a form of organization on the observations.

Or take the current rioting in Greece: we might construct these masses of collective behavior as rationally directed economic protest, righteous resistance, or opportunistic anarchism. Each alternative has different implications, and each corresponds to a somewhat different set of background assumptions about how social interactions unfold. Each corresponds to a different social metaphysic.  Different observers bring a different set of assumptions about how the social world works to their observations. And these frameworks lead to different constructions of the events.

Or consider the question of the social “things” around which we organize our social perceptions: nations, financial markets, cities, parties, and ideologies, for example. How much arbitrariness is there in the ontological schemes into which we organize the world? Could we have done just as well at making sense of our experience with a substantially different ontology? Is there a most basic ontology that underlies each of these and is a scheme that cannot be dispensed with?

We might try a “fundamental” ontology along these lines: we must identify individuals as purposive, intentional agents; we must recognize relations among individuals — giving us social networks, knowledge transmission, and groups; and we must recognize social processes with causal powers, constituted by individuals within specific social relations. And we must recognize the situation of consciousness — beliefs, desires, values, and ideologies. And, we might hypothesize, we can build up all other more specific social entities out of aggregations of these simple things.

This is one possible way of formalizing a social ontology.  But there are others.  For example, we might give priority to relations rather than individuals; or we might give priority to processes rather than structures.  So it is hard to justify the notion that there is a single uniquely best way of conceptualizing the realm of the social.

An interesting collateral question has to do with the possibility of systemic error: is it possible that our metaphysical presuppositions about the social world sometimes lead us to construe our social observations in ways that systematically misrepresent reality? For example, would a “metaphysics of suspicion” (the idea that people generally conceal their true motives) lead us to a worldview along the lines of Jerry Fletcher, the central character in Conspiracy Theory?

Several things seem likely. First, there is no single and unique set of ontological “simples” for the social world. Rather, there are likely to be multiple starting points, all of which can result in a satisfactory account of the social world. So there is no transcendental metaphysics for the social world — including the candidate sketched above.

Second, it seems that the unavoidable necessity of having a set of causal, semantic, and process schemata does not guarantee correctness. Our schemata may systematically mislead us.  So the schemata themselves amount to a large empirical hypothesis; they may be superseded by other schemata that serve better to organize our experiences.  The schemata are not determined by either apriori or empirical considerations.  And therefore our social cognitions are always a work in progress, and our conceptual frameworks are more like a paradigm than an ineluctable conceptual foundation.

%d bloggers like this: